Luis Melmer and his family run the Alpengasthof Praxmar, a stately mountain guesthouse located in the Lüsenstal Valley south of Innsbruck. Far from the noise and stress of the city, it is an alpine haven where people come to get away from it all.
It is just 30 kilometres or 40 minutes by car from Innsbruck to the Lüsenstal Valley, and yet the hustle and bustle of big city life seems a million miles away. Overlooking the valley is the majestic Alpengasthof Praxmar, a pinewood palace which is open throughout the year and serves in summer and winter as a popular base for visitors wishing to climb some of the valley’s highest peaks.
„You are the ruler of your own little kingdom!“
Alois “Luis” Melmer, owner of the Alpengasthof Praxmar, explains: “There is a phenomenon which I often see here. People arrive with the weight of the world on their shoulders. When they leave, just a few days later, you can already see the difference. Why? Because we give guests the chance to get back to what it truly means to be a human being. We don’t need a spa and beauty area. Our spa is nature itself.”
Luis and I gaze into the distance, as quiet and content as the ski touring enthusiasts who have settled down on the terrace in their short-sleeved shirts to soak up the sun and reward themselves for their sporting achievements with a hearty meal. “Over there, that’s where the toboggan run is. Down there is the fish pond. And over in the distance you can see our pine forest,” explains Luis as he points left and right. “Wow,” I say, “You are the ruler of your own little kingdom!” Luis hesitates before responding: “Yes, I suppose you are right. But I don’t like to hear that. After all, I inherited it all from my ancestors.”
Twenty-two generations and counting
Luis is the 22nd generation of his family to run the Alpengasthof Praxmar. And while it is true that the foundations of what he has today were laid by those who went before him, he has also been part of some very important developments in the valley since he took over the running of the guesthouse several decades ago.
The Lüsenstal Valley is a side valley branching off the Sellraintal Valley, which is itself a side valley of the Inn Valley. Praxmar, which is perched at 1,700 metres above sea level but can be reached easily by road, is too small even to be considered a hamlet. It is, in fact, nothing more than a collection of buildings standing side by side on a remote mountain slope.
„There was just one problem – and that problem was me.“
Between the wars, the Luis’s mother had to take over the running of the farm and guesthouse at the tender age of just 18. In 1941 she met Luis’s father, who worked as a hunter. The Melmers had two daughters, then Luis in 1946, followed by three more children. As in many other regions of Tirol the post-war period was characterised by a slow but steady recovery of the tourism industry which had started before the Second World War. Luis’s father was one of the most active members of the local community. “In 1961,” remembers Luis, “he built the valley’s first ski lift – until then we had nothing.” At the age of 10 Luis was sent off to the famous Jesuit boarding school in Vorarlberg. “I don’t know why my father sent me there, but I wasn’t happy.” As soon as he could, Luis stopped going to school and instead came back to Praxmar to help run the new ski lift near his family home.
Time went by and Tirol’s tourism industry grew and grew. In the 1980s many local ski resorts invested huge sums of money installing new lifts and building new pistes. Artificial snow-making was introduced for the first time. Ski resorts expanded up onto some of the region’s mightiest glaciers. These rapid developments didn’t go unnoticed in the Lüsenstal Valley, where a key decision had to be made: “My father wanted to built ski lifts throughout the valley. Everything had been agreed, the plans were drawn up and an investor had been found. There was just one problem – and that problem was me.”
Protest of the ski tourers
Luis organised a protest together with a group of ski tourers from the valley. They marched up onto the Lampsenspitze, a mountain overlooking the Alpengasthof Praxmar, to express their dismay at his father’s ski-resort plans. A regional newspaper even wrote an article about the family fued. In the end the project was never realised because the farmer who owned the land needed for the car park refused to sell.
Even in the early 2000s, he remembers, many people remained sceptical about his soft-tourism approach. “People laughed and told me that I had no chance of keeping the business afloat with my ‘rucksack tourists’,” says Luis with a smile. Today, however, he is the one who is laughing. Soft tourism, the term used to refer to a more gentle and environmentally friendly approach, is booming. Ski touring enthusiasts, cross-country skiers, tobogganers and snowshoe hikers flock to the Lüsenstal Valley to enjoy its untouched natural landscape. Luis enjoys taking guests with him when he goes into the forest to feed the animals: “Lots of children who come here end up spending the whole day in the stables with the horses and don’t even touch their skis until it’s time to go home!”
„Today we have finally achieved what we always wanted to.“
Although Praxmar has “eight months of winter and four cold months a year”, it is attracting an increasing number of walkers, hikers and mountain bikers between May and September. One of the annual highlights is the “Hirschbrunftwoche”, a sold-out week organised each autumn by Luis and him team giving guests the opportunity to observe mountain deer during the traditional mating season. With 60 beds in rooms plus 40 more sleeping spaces in dormitories and eight holiday apartments, there is plenty of work all year round to keep Luis, his wife Maria and his two daughters Renate and Andrea busy. Stress? For Luis it is exactly the opposite: “Today we have finally achieved what was always wanted to. I savour every single day.”
Ready for generation number 24
Luis gets most pleasure from working on the farm and outdoors in the beautiful natural surroundings, where he has time to think and reflect. “There’s no doubt that within the space of just a few decades tourism has generated wealth in even the most remote valleys, where for centuries life was very hard. At the same time, people come and go – but the mountains will always be here. Of course there is always room for improvement, things you could do better, but I think it is important to understand that sometimes less is more. I would rather invest in accommodation for staff rather than build a ski resort in the valley. For me, that’s what sustainability is all about.”
Talking of sustainability, what are the plans in the medium term for the Alpengasthof Praxmar? Luis has already passed ownership of the guesthouse onto his daughter, with plans already in place to do the same with the farm. His teenager granddaughter attends a specialist school with a focus on the hospitality industry. Luis laughs: “If I am generation number 22 then I don’t need to worry about the future until at least generation number 24!”